Tag Archives: Children’s books

Children’s Book Week Giveaway Hop–And the Winner Is…!

11 May

Children's Book Week Giveaway Hope Banner 2015

I’m happy to announce that Hope C., who blogs at HopeToRead.com, is the winner of two lovely illustrated books, Pinocchio and Nelson Mandela’s Favorite African Folktales.  I see that Hope’s blog features many Book Tours and Giveaways, so do stop by!  Thanks to everyone who entered and participated in this event to celebrate kids and reading (perfect together!).

Children’s Book Week Giveaway Hop–Giving Away Two Illustrated Books!

3 May

Children's Book Week Giveaway Hope Banner 2015For Children’s Book Week, I’m delighted to participate in the Children’s Book Giveaway Blog Hop hosted by Tressa at Wishful Endings.  I’m giving away BRAND NEW paperback copies of two illustrated books I’ve reviewed previously here at The Fictional 100 (each title is linked to my review):

Both books seem to me to be perfect for all ages.  School Library Journal suggests Grades 1 to 5 for Nelson Mandela’s folktales. These books have gorgeous, innovative illustrations enhancing the delightful texts.  I am giving away one gift package containing both books. Follow the instructions on the giveaway link below, which will be open May 4 to May 10 for entrants from the US or Canada.


I will notify the winner by email on May 11th. Please respond within 48 hours, if possible, so that I can send you your books! Thanks for entering and supporting Children’s Book Week! I thank Sharon at Faith Hope & Cherrytea for letting me know about the Giveaway Hop.

Please CLICK the blue linky button to visit the other participating blogs offering more great giveaways, and have fun sharing books with children!

Review: Nelson Mandela’s Favorite African Folktales — #Diversiverse

27 Sep

Cover illustration by Natalie Hinrichsen.


Nelson Mandela’s Favorite African Folktales. Foreword by Nelson Mandela. Various authors and illustrators. W. W. Norton, 2002. (also available as an Audiobook)

This review supports the #Diversiverse Challenge (by Aarti Chapati at BookLust) to promote a more diverse universe of reading and reviewing. It is also part of my series on beautiful book illustrations, in story collections for children and adults.

Diversiverse -- amdu200clean


When I first discovered this book, about ten years ago, I was very excited, not only because it is a beautiful book inspired by Nelson Mandela’s love of African folktales, but also because it has a new story about Hlakanyana, a character I had written about in The Fictional 100 (chapter 39).  Hlakanyana is a Trickster character who is important in the folktales of the Zulu and Xhosa people of South Africa.  Of the 32 stories collected in Mandela’s book, many of them are from the countries of southern Africa, but Nigeria, Morocco, Gabon, Central African Republic, Kenya, Tanzania, and the Congo are also represented with stories.  The book opens with a map showing the geographical distribution of the tales.


Nelson Mandela's Favorite African Folktales, Map by Abdul Amien. (Digital image by Secrets of a Happy Childhood)

Nelson Mandela’s Favorite African Folktales, Map by Abdul Amien. (Digital image from Secrets of a Happy Childhood


These stories are brief yet still “rich with the gritty essence of Africa” (as Mandela writes in his Foreword).  Many are Trickster tales, irresistible in the ingenious way they both flout and reinforce social customs.  There are human tricksters, like Hlakanyana and Sankhambi, and animal tricksters, like Hare, Jackal, and Spider.  Some animals are not tricksters at all, but have other recurring symbolic roles (the regal Lion and mysterious Snake are examples).

The history of these tales is long and varied.  Every retelling of a folktale is unique–a new story–and Mandela is sensitive to the way these stories have evolved in the minds and words of different storytellers:

Because a story is a story; and you may tell it as your imagination and your being and your environment dictate; and if your story grows wings and becomes the property of others, you may not hold it back. One day it will return to you, enriched by new details and with a new voice.

Many voices are included in this collection (for a total of 19 authors), along with the imaginations of many illustrators (19 artists).  One blogger who reviewed this book (Moni Dani, Secrets of a Happy Childhood) noticed that, while all but one of the illustrators are South African, their styles are generally not traditional and exemplify the diversity of modern trends in African art.  Thus, Mandela’s collection is an exciting pairing, she finds, of authentic, traditionally told tales with a very contemporary type of visual art.  Let’s jump in and look at a few of them!

“The Enchanting Song of the Magical Bird” (recorded over a century ago by Pastor Julius Oelke in Tanganyika–now Tanzania; translated by Darrel Bristow-Bovey) is the book’s first story. It begins, “One day, a strange bird arrived in a small village that nestled among low hills.  From that moment on, nothing was safe.”  The giant bird swooped in and devoured all the crops in the fields and in the granaries. Even the animals–sheep, goats, and chickens–began to disappear. It hid in an old yellowwood tree when it wasn’t plundering the villagers’ food supply. They decided that the tree must be chopped down, and perhaps then the frightening bird would leave their village.  But whenever the men tried to chop the trunk of the tree, they heard “the honey-sweet song” of the bird, and they were transfixed. They couldn’t continue and gave up the attempt. (The description reminded me of Odysseus’ men rapt by the song of the Sirens.) They tried many times, but the entrancing song of the bird or the sight of its beautiful plumage stopped them every time. At last, the headman had the idea to send the village children to do the job, because, “Children hear truly and their eyes are clear.”  Amazingly, the children were not swayed by the charms of the bird, and they felled the tree, whose branches crushed the bird and killed it. This haunting story is so different from what I expected–the opposite of the Pied Piper of Hamelin, for example, where the children are led away by the charming Piper’s song.  Instead, the children’s innocence allows them to discern the evil hiding under the false appearance, the honey-sweet song and iridescent feathers.  And now for its beautiful illustration:


"The Enchanting Song of the Magical Bird," illustration by Piet Grobler.

“The Enchanting Song of the Magical Bird,” illustration by Piet Grobler.


“The Message” (Nama people, Zimbabwe; from Grandma Rachel Eises, as told to George Weideman; translated by Leila Latimer) is a story of miscommunication, teaching how death came into the world. It begins:

This is the story of Full Moon, Tick, and Hare, and the message that Moon sent to the people a long, long time ago.

This was no ordinary message! Indeed, it was a most important message. Because, you see, Moon does not really die. She comes back again, as we see each time at full moon. And Moon wanted the people to know this truth: “Just as I die and come alive again, so you also shall die and live again.”

Moon gave the message to Tick to give to the people in the kraal (an encampment of huts for a clan). First, Tick jumped onto the feathers of a sand grouse who flew away, so Tick did not deliver his joyful news to the people, some of whom were now sick and dying–he could hear their crying by the campfires. Then he jumped into the fur of a gemsbok (a gazelle), but it jumped swiftly away from the kraal. At last, Tick faithfully delivered the message to Hare, but Hare was, well, hare-brained and forgot the message, telling the people instead, “Just as I die and remain dead, so shall you die and perish.”  The sickest man in the village died that day. Moon was angry at Hare and threw a piece of burned log at its face; hare threw it back at the face of the moon, which now bears the dusty color of the ashes.


"The Message," illustrated by Robert Hichens.

“The Message,” illustrated by Robert Hichens.


“The Snake Chief” (Zulu; from Miriam Majola, as told to Diana Pitcher) is a beautiful story about the magic flowing from a mother and daughter’s love for each other. It begins: “Nandi was very poor. Her husband was dead and she had no sons to herd cattle and only one daughter to help in the fields.” One day Nandi went as usual to gather berries from the umdoni trees; she sold these berries to get food for herself and her daughter, but this day Snake was there at the tree, eating the berries. Nandi objected that he had stolen her berries and she would have nothing to trade for meat to eat. Snake did not threaten her, but merely struck a bargain. He asked, “What will you give me in exchange for the umdoni berries? If I fill your basket, will you give me your daughter?” Surprisingly, Nandi agreed, thinking she could elude the Snake by taking a circuitous route home. But no!–Snake soon appeared to claim the daughter, as promised. Nandi cried and objected, but her daughter honored her mother’s promise and welcomed the Snake, finding him food and caring for him. In the morning when Nandi woke, she found not Snake but in his place a handsome young man, likely a chief’s son, who would stay with them, herd cattle, and make their lives better as a faithful son-in-law. Love between daughter and mother, and the daughter’s kindness, had undone the enchantment on the young man.  This is a beautiful variation of the “animal groom” motif, known worldwide. The French story of “Beauty and the Beast” is another famous example, but in “The Snake Chief” it was the girl’s mother who made the bargain with the beast by taking berries, instead of a father who was caught taking a single red rose.  In both stories, family life was reinforced because parental love was transformed into stable marital love and the generations could move on in harmony.  I love the sweet illustration for this tale: the Snake coils around the scene of the loving couple like a picture frame, while mother Nandi looks on proudly.


"The Snake Chief," illustrated by Baba Afrika.

“The Snake Chief,” illustrated by Baba Afrika.


“How Hlakanyana Outwitted the Monster” (Zulu and other Nguni folklore; retold by Jack Cope) is a sequel to the story I retold in my Fictional 100 chapter about his outrageous misdeeds in his village.  This story tells another incident after he fled the angry villagers, and begins:

Hlakanyana had left his mother and run away from home because the warriors were hunting for him.  He walked along on his journey over the earth, but he had nothing to make music with and nothing happy to sing about. He was very tired and very hungry.

Trickster characters are always ravenously hungry, prey to their own unbridled appetites, and this is exactly what gets them into so much trouble! First, he catches a hare and cooks him, then makes a flute from the hare’s shinbone, because he loves to make up songs.  So far, no problem, but strangeness lays ahead for him. He encounters a clay monster on the ground, with grass growing on one side of his body (eek!)–the monster is eating a fresh loaf of bread and Hlakanyana manages to steal it.  The monster gets up and chases him into a hole under a tree, but Hlakanyana is clever and tricks the creature into letting go of his leg, making him think it is a tree root he has grasped. The illustration shows that Hlakanyana is no average naughty boy, but a mythic creature himself. To me, this story suggests a lesson about not being rapacious with the Earth, but sometimes letting it rest and keep its fruits, the grain so necessary for bread and for life.


"How Hlakanyana Outwitted the Monster," illustration by Neels Britz.

“How Hlakanyana Outwitted the Monster,” illustration by Neels Britz.


Oh, there are so many stories–about tree wives and wolf queens, and so much more. But I will stop now and just hope you will pick up this book for yourself, or enjoy the all-star Audiobook (described below).

  • Hlakanyana ranks 39th on the Fictional 100. On his page you will find some further information about him.

Related links:

I’m also counting this book toward my participation in the Travel the World in Books Reading Challenge.

Travel-the-World-in-Books-Reading-Challenge 300x300


An Illustrated Ramayana for Kids: “Rama and Sita – Path of Flames”

26 May

Rama and Sita - Path of Flames cover

Rama and Sita Path of Flames, told by Sally Pomme Clayton, illus. by Sophie Herxheimer. London: Frances Lincoln Children’s Books, 2010.

Storyteller Sally Pomme Clayton is equally adept at performing her stories for an audience as she is at committing them to the printed page. When she set about retelling the Ramayana, the two-thousand-year-old epic love story of India, she brought the oral storyteller’s sense of immediacy into the book right away, with a charming frame story. In it, she, the author, visits a junk shop and buys a brown wool monkey, a knitted toy that surprises her by speaking as soon as they are outside. He announces he is Hanuman, the Monkey God, the Divine devotee of Rama and Sita. The author is skeptical of this, since his tag says “Made in China.” Hanuman explains that he has traveled widely over the centuries–from his home in India to Indonesia to Cambodia, Vietnam, China, and now a shop in Britain–and he says,

wherever I go, people think I belong to them. … I’ve been traveling for two thousand years. You see, I love the story of Rama and Sita, and wherever it’s told, I’m there too, listening. It’s a brilliant story, it’s got magic and adventure, scary bits and funny bits–and I’m in it! You’re going to be telling the story next, aren’t you?

A great way to start.

Clayton’s style is conversational without being too informal, and she packs incidents into her narrative with brisk economy, keeping many important details. But Rama and Sita Path of Flames is also a wonderful picture book–the second in my series featuring notable illustrators and illustrated children’s books. The illustrator, Sophie Herxheimer, paints her characters with black brush strokes and colored wash, and the figures float freely around the white pages of text without any tethering landscape. The focus is squarely on the characters, from the most beautiful–Sita and Rama–to the most bizarre–the rakshasas (demons), with fearsome faces, often several, on many heads! The main arc of the story can be mapped as:

Miraculous Births–Marriage Test of Sita–Exile of Rama and Sita–Abduction of Sita–Rescue of Sita–Trial by Fire–Restoration.

Both Rama and Sita are born in answer to fervent prayer by their royal parents after a period of intense yearning. They have a divine destiny to restore cosmic harmony, which has become unbalanced through the incursion of too many demons into the human realm. Rama is the eldest son of King Dasharatha, the son of the king’s first wife; he has three brothers, born to his father’s two other wives, and the four brothers are all mutually devoted. Sita is the daughter of King Janaka, whose prayer was answered when he discovered a beautiful infant girl in the “furrow” (sita) of his field one day; she was a gift of the Mother Goddess Shri, her essence in human form.

When she was fully grown, Sita chose her husband in the swayamvara ceremony, in which suitors would vie to perform the marriage test she set them: to lift the great god Shiva’s golden bow. After many tried and failed to budge it, Rama was able to lift it easily, and even bend it to be strung, breaking it in half in the process. Sita accepted Rama as her husband, and they were happy for a time, until King Dasharatha was swayed by his jealous second wife to install her own son Bharata as his royal successor, displacing Rama. She further demanded Rama’s exile from the kingdom. Bharata objected fiercely to this, but obedient to his father, Rama accepted this hardship without complaint, as did Sita. Rama and Sita retired to the forest, along with Rama’s brother Lakshmana. The loyal Bharata placed Rama’s sandals on the throne in his stead, until his hoped-for return someday.

Although Rama and Sita managed well in the simple life of the forest, they were no longer as safe from the designs of the demons abounding there. Ravana, the ten-headed king of the demons, was obsessed with Sita’s beauty, and plotted to take her for himself. Both Rama and Lakshmana were lured away by illusion and trickery, leaving only a magic circle in the dust to guard Sita. Ravana quickly took advantage of this and put the rest of his plan to work.


Sita was not only beautiful but kind-hearted and virtuous, so Ravana lured her out of the circle by posing as a holy man, in need of food and water. When she stepped out to help him, he grabbed her and, resuming his fearsome demonic form, he summoned his magic chariot to fly them both to his kingdom in Lanka (Sri Lanka). The abduction of Sita is a dramatic climax of any version of the Ramayana, and artist Sophie Herxheimer makes the most of it with one of her most striking drawings:


In traditional Ramlila re-enactments of the story, the actor portraying Ravana wears a headdress with the required nine additional heads. I like how Herxheimer’s drawing is able to make the demon faces and arms cluster around Sita who is terrified and screams for help.


Rama and Lakshmana realize they have been tricked and begin their journey south to rescue Sita. They will enlist the aid of Sugriva, king of the monkeys, who sends his army to help them. Their heroic general Hanuman is a divine being distinguished by his deep devotion to Rama, whom he recognizes as an incarnation of the great God Vishnu. Hanuman is equally devoted to Sita and his outsized courage, along with Rama’s strength and devotion to her, will lead them all to prevail over the demons. But the detailed working out of this rescue is a wonder I will not spoil for any reader who is happily encountering this story for the first time!

The Ramayana is also a reflection of an ordered society, so the drama is public as well as a private emotional struggle. When Rama rescues Sita, his own jealousy is compounded by the societal norms that a wife will not spend time alone, unchaperoned, in the company of another man. The complexity of Rama’s doubt and Sita’s courage in demonstrating her faithfulness and integrity form the finale to the story. It is indeed a “path of flames” because Sita calls upon a trial by fire to uphold her innocence. Her purity is untouched, even walking through flames, and she is restored to Rama, their happy marriage, and a peaceful kingdom, where Rama and Sita will now rule as king and queen.

And what of Hanuman? He stays with them in humble service. Because he holds Rama and Sita in his heart at all times, he is a supreme model of devotion to God.


This retelling for children ends here, but the Ramayana tradition includes a further postscript where Rama once again allows himself to be swayed by doubts and gossip about Sita’s innocence. (Anyone who has ever watched tabloid television will know how readily people can sometimes entertain the worst notions about their neighbors, especially those who are famous.) Brave Sita is once again exiled, but this time by Rama himself; she is already pregnant and takes shelter with the sage Valmiki, the very poet who will sing this story, the Ramayana. Rama is eventually united with his twin sons, Lava and Kusha, but Sita returns to Mother Earth. Knowing this, I am reminded of the prophetic words early in this book, when Sita and Rama are first exiled to the forest by Dasharatha: “Sita had been born from the earth, and Earth took care of her child.”

There is no shortage of illustrated versions of the Ramayana for children, including the Amar Chitra Katha series of comics, popular among both children and adults.


The stories and characters which endure invite endless realizations by authors and illustrators. I recommend Rama and Sita: Path of Flames most highly as a witty, accessible retelling of this great epic of India, beautifully enhanced by its illustrator. Artist Sophie Herxheimer has posted a delightful video demonstrating how she works, brainstorming with brush and ink in hand to come up with new ideas for illustrations. She is a very entertaining teacher! At Sally Pomme Clayton’s website, you can see a video of her live storytelling of Rama and Sita: A Path of Flames, accompanied by tabla, violin, and other instruments.

Sita is 20th on The Fictional 100.


Related post:

Glorious Romp: Sara Fanelli’s Illustrated “Pinocchio”

29 Mar


Pinocchio by Carlo Collodi, illus. by Sara Fanelli, trans. by Emma Rose (Candlewick Illustrated Classics). Candlewick Press, 2003.

This post marks the beginning of a series introducing some beautifully illustrated children’s books and fairy tale collections I’ve encountered over the past year. My first selection, Pinocchio, illustrated by Sara Fanelli (with a sprightly translation by Emma Rose) is so full of life and originality that it almost jumps up and runs away, as Pinocchio did when Geppetto carved his legs and feet! It is a remarkably fresh realization of this modern classic tale, which is indefinable as either a children’s or an adult’s book–it is both. She writes:

“Pinocchio was a part of my childhood: I was born and grew up in Florence, the birthplace of Carlo Collodi, and the puppet was present not just in the words of the book, but also quite literally in the everyday landscape, in the shop windows and markets. Children often sang songs and rhymes about him and sometimes I even used to put on a pointy hat and pretend I was a little puppet to my family.

When I first read Pinocchio as a child, I reacted against its moralistic undertones; when I read it as a grown-up illustrator I fell for the energy and surrealism of the puppet’s escapades.” [from the foreword]

Fanelli’s inventive collage art seems perfectly equipped to express the free-wheeling mischief of this iconic child and also his heart-tugging growing pains, when his explorations turn into mishaps or outright disasters. She uses bits of wallpaper, snatches of newsprint, cutouts from photos, graph-paper backgrounds, her own brush-stroke ink drawings, and “scribbles,” which she says “generate a sense of energy on the page.”¹ With this welter of materials, she controls her color palette (on the warm side) and achieves a convincing unity of effect, which is showcased in this beautifully produced treasure of a book. I can’t describe all its visual wonders–I hope you can see them for yourself–but here are some of my favorites.

I love her image of Pinocchio, with his green wallpaper pants and his pointy red hat (bearing part of a math diagram). He is bending over to peer into a blue bowl that’s printed like closely woven fabric. We know the bowl is filled with water because Pinocchio’s reflection fills its interior, and he is getting the first glimpse of his very improbable self. The cast of characters he meets are also created with delightful flair. We first see the blue-haired fairy girl as she converses with a fancy-dress poodle, who stands on his hind legs and looks out at the reader with a very human eye. The Blue Fairy appears to Pinocchio in many guises (once as a talking snail!) but above all she is a mother figure.² A charming page shows the little puppet embracing her in joy; behind him waits a photo-real plate of pasta and greens that the fairy has made for him. The scenes of some of Pinocchio’s most famous adventures are laid out in dramatic double-page spreads, such as the carnival-like puppet theater, with its colorful tent and gorgeous commedia dell’arte figures; the daydreamy schoolroom, where he tries hard to be a “good boy”; and the belly of the big shark, whose rows of white teeth border the top and bottom of watery, dark blue pages, as the story carries on in white type.

Fanelli’s enchanted Collage-land (a sort of Funland for the reader) is so enthralling that you may be surprised to wake up at the end and find that the wooden puppet has become a real boy–no, I mean it, a real Italian schoolboy shown top to toe in an old sepia photograph. Still, she puts a few marks of lingering enchantment on him–a blush spot on his cheek, drawn triangles for his hat and trademark nose, and a bit of white handkerchief in his pocket, embroidered with a big letter P.

Pinocchio is 59th on The Fictional 100.


  1. This quote is from Joanna Carey’s detailed profile of Sara Fanelli’s work: “Dynamic Doodles,” The Guardian, April 16, 2004.
  2. I am not the first to wonder if the Blue Fairy could be a symbol for the Virgin Mary, who is usually dressed in blue. Especially for an Italian writer like Collodi, she would surely be a type, ready to hand, for depicting the pinnacle of compassionate motherhood. In fact, the story as a whole has other elements of Christian allegory, such as the carpenter Geppetto (Giuseppe, or Joseph) as the boy’s father, and Pinocchio himself dying into new life. (See Rebecca West, “The Real Life Adventures of Pinocchio,” University of Chicago Magazine, December 2002.)
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